A House in Our Arms – fiction by Justin Taylor
We made it to New York.
That’s how we put it when we talk about it with each other, even though it means something different to each of us, and even though we’re both pretty used to it by now. I came straight from school, worked some crap jobs, then landed a decent one. It’s at a hedge fund and I hate it, at least theoretically.
In practice I find the more time I spend doing it the less I feel one way or the other. It’s just what I’m doing, what I do. I work with nice enough people. They started me out as an assistant but I’m already almost a junior manager. Who knows where I might wind up if I stick around.
Leah stayed on in our college town, waitressing and getting fired from waitressing. When she got tired of that she moved home for a while, then traveled. Europe of course, and the far East. Now she’s studying sculpture. She talks about getting “my MFA,” as if dropping by the school to pick up something she left there, maybe a coat.
We never dated, of course, but what we had—there’s no exact name for it—was well-understood and envied within our circle. The other guys would sometimes ask me what it was like to go to bed with her. She was the recently-turned lesbian they all wanted to be the one to turn back. And how smug was I? How quick—but also truly pleased—to explain that I was the exception that proved her rule. Ah, college.
I suppose we are still enviable, since what we have is the same as it ever was, though probably most of the people I know now wouldn’t envy us.
Leah is in a new version of our old world, but I don’t worry too much about losing her. We have the fullness of our history to draw on. We see each other as often as our hectic schedules allow.
I’m supposed to be going with her to an opening tonight, and I’ve been looking forward to it, but I got held up at the office and had to send an apologetic text message canceling on cocktails but promising to meet her at the gallery.
Because of this, Leah greets me curtly and then rejoins the little semicircle she was in when I tapped her shoulder. A group of people, all about our age, are standing around a rotund, gray-haired man who I believe has an essay in the current New Yorker, which I subscribe to; though if he is who I think he is then I fell asleep while reading his article. To show her that I am other than a perfect philistine, I spend several minutes studying what is clearly the star piece in the show. It has this monumental physical presence and a sort of explosive personality, like Rauschenberg covering Nevelson, or vice versa. See? I say to the Leah in my head. I know a thing or two about this stuff. The Leah in my head is very impressed.
I glance across the room. She’s still doing her thing over there. I go for the refreshments: a long metal table with jugs of wine and lightly sweating pyramids of cubed cheese. I am pouring myself a burgundy when an older man holds out his clear plastic cup.
“Fill me up?” He smiles suggestively, but with more than a touch of self-awareness, maybe even self-parody. I laugh and accidentally shake the jug a little as I pour, spilling a few drops onto the man’s hand, but thankfully I don’t stain his cuff. “Oh,” the man says. “Now you’ll have to lick it off.”
Am I going to laugh at this? He’s laughing. Okay, I’m laughing.
Richard has a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, and is thickset in a way that suggests he’s going to go to seed, but maybe not just yet. He prides himself on the fact that he can be scandalous, “but hardly after two cups of bottom-shelf merlot,” he says and I remind him it’s burgundy we’re drinking and Richard laughs in a way that is almost shrieking.
After a quick turn up and down the gallery, chatting, we come back to the table for refills. The burgundy is gone. Now we really are drinking merlot.
Leah comes up to us, rosy, buzzed, ready for my attention. Richard drifts off. Leah wants to point out Alison, the conceptual portraitist she’s been seeing but is currently on the outs with. I can’t remember what happened this time. There’s always some particular incident—the ostensible reason—but at bottom the fact seems to be that there is a natural ebb and flow in the women’s ability to tolerate one another. But there is a real love there, Leah is certain.
Alison is heavier than I expected, with curly dark hair and sad eyes. She looks Jewish, and is deep in conversation with a much older woman who I think is the reason we’re all here.
You know what I mean when I say that.
Leah is saying goodbye to the famous critic and I am throwing out our cups, thinking about how I’m going to get home and what time I have to be up for work tomorrow. Is it early enough for a nightcap somewhere? If we hurry. I run into Richard at the garbage can.
He insists I take his number, which he’s already written down on a napkin. “Just think about it,” he says, placing one hand firmly on my shoulder. “You look like you could use someone to make you a real dinner. A growing boy like you. Really, any time.”
So sometimes I have dinner over at Richard’s.
It’s a different night. We’re leaving a bar, up by Leah’s place. It rained while we were drinking and the city looks delicate, refreshed. All the streetlamps have birthday candle halos.
Leah is hanging on my arm. It’s no big thing, she’s not stumbling; just making sure I feel her presence, her thereness. We reach her building.
“Gentleman you are,” she says. “Walking me home.” I smile.
“So you want to come upstairs?”
She slips a hand into my pocket, squeezes.
“Well,” she says, “what’s it gonna be?”
“If you really need me to say it,” I say. “I mean of course.”
“Awesome,” she says, and pecks me on the cheek. Hand still in my pocket. “But you’re not staying over.”
But then she lets me.
I live in Murray Hill. Leah lives up by her school. This means that in order to see her I need to take the 6 to Grand Central, ride the shuttle to Times Square, then finish my trip on the 1. Or spring for a cab. Not that I’m so broke, but still.
Richard has a rent-controlled place in Alphabet City. The neighborhood, seedy when he moved in, has gentrified smartly over the decades. Richard has stories about the prostitutes who used the corner laundromat (since become a coffee shop) as their home base, about the bums who would sleep in his building’s stairwell, ready to fight you if you roused them, about how all the real character has been driven from the city, though it is nice to be able to walk around at night.
A cab home from Richard’s is eight bucks, tops, and often Richard insists that I take some money to pay for it. “Refuse me twice and you’ll make me cry,” he’ll say, half-serious. (It’s sometimes hard to tell with Richard what is genuine and what is theatre.) I act exasperated, You’re making me feel like a kid, I say, but I accept the cash, grinning, and only then can we complete our goodnight ritual: a hearty, protracted embrace during which he pecks me on the cheek, or maybe tries to plant one right on the mouth.
I’ve begun to crave the undivided affection Richard gives me on our nights together. Sometimes when I’m at work
I find myself drifting off, thinking of the low light by which we dine, how he’s taken to keeping a bottle of my preferred bourbon in the house. “I don’t know about another round before dinner, Richard,” I might say, and Richard might say “Oh come on—you young people are supposed to be able to take it.”
It’s hard to say who’s more surprised the night I respond to Richard’s latest hysterical come-on by laconically unzipping my fly.
I no longer think of Leah as the love of my life, but I do still sometimes think we might make each other the happiest. It would be more like teaming up than being married. We could do all kinds of things together, whatever she wanted. I could work, she could sculpt; she could have girls too if she wanted. She could bring them home to us sometimes.
I know it’s silly, but I think about it. Also I think maybe it isn’t so silly.
Richard fucks me with a ruthlessness utterly disconnected from his demeanor, that carefully crafted mélange of snark and fey. He tops, for one thing, and sometimes when he gets frisky he gets rough. The situation ought to allow for nothing in either partner but animal instinct. Instead, I’m feeling oddly trapped inside what is shaping up to be a muddled, but essentially analytical, drunk.
How have I wound up in this apartment, on my belly, on this bed, greased?
Obviously this is all philosophically speaking.
Richard’s trying to get me into position for a reacharound, but I’m not helping because at this particular moment my being fucked feels like it is happening in an adjoining room. In that room, I think, Richard has given up on parity and is now calling me filthy things.
The smoke alarm goes off. The salmon. Richard pulls out. It is a rushed, painful exit that makes me gasp. Richard runs to the beige disk, snatches it off of the ceiling, disabling it. He opens the oven and surveys the ruined food. The salmon is blackened and hard; it looks like scorched, warped bricks.
“Goddamn, Goddamn,” Richard says. I hear the quaver in his voice.
We stand at opposite ends of the kitchen, two naked men, first not looking at each other, then looking.
I am eating fried pork dumplings out of a white box balanced on my lap, a lot less drunk than I was before, which I think is good. Richard has spareribs and makes a show of sucking the meat off each bone. I start telling him all about Leah, figuring there is an obvious segue from this into breaking up with him, but I can’t find it, so I just keep on telling old sex stories.
“Ugh,” Richard says finally. “I ate a pussy once in college, and that was plenty.”
“I think we should be just friends,” I say. Richard stares at me, gnawing on his last rib. “Okay, I know it sounds stupid,” I say, “I mean with us sitting here.”
Still, Richard says nothing.
“I don’t want to hurt you. Really. But I think this is a mistake for me. I thought maybe it wasn’t, but it is. I hope you can understand. We can still see each other. I love it when you cook dinner.”
Richard clears his throat, starts to talk, stops, then says: “You know, I try and remind myself that you’re all the same, but apparently there are some things in life a person never gets used to.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re trying so hard to be understanding but the fact is you couldn’t possibly understand. For starters, you think you’re my boyfriend. You think this is my whole life.”
I’m in Leah’s kitchen, which is also her living room. We’re sitting in highback wooden chairs, getting drunk on Maker’s Mark. I guess we’re about halfway there. Her apartment is an almost uncramped studio near the park. At least the tub is in the bathroom. Recipes are stuck to the fridge with fruit magnets, though Leah only ever eats out or orders in.
She’s been telling me about this studio class she’s taking called “Across Mediums: Conversations Within and Between the Arts.” It sounds interesting, or at any rate she seems to be enjoying it, and like evidence supporting an alibi, here’s a copy of Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems on the table. It’s thick, paperback, black; the cover dominated by a yellowed headshot of the poet. He has close-cropped dark hair, a high forehead, full lips. He’s looking over his right shoulder, gaze brimming with a melancholy not entirely unsweet. And yet it is Orphic, the glance, as if in turning to face the camera he has somehow changed things irreversibly, or become privy to a secret both terrible and grand. You get the feeling it’s not about him.
I open the book, flip to any page, and read out what I find:
the unrecapturable nostalgia for nostalgia
for a life I might have hated, thus mourned
but do we really need anything more to be sorry about
wouldn’t it be extra, as all pain is extra
“Don’t be afraid to jump around,” she cuts in. “That’s the way to read him.”
So, on another page:
if Kenneth were writing this he would point out how art has changed women and
women have changed art and men, but men haven’t changed women much
but ideas are obscure and nothing should be obscure tonight
you will live half the year in a house by the sea and half the year in a house in our arms.
This time I interrupt myself. “Who’s Kenneth?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” she says. “He’s always mentioning people. You get the feeling they’re all somebody. There might be notes in the back.” There aren’t. She gets up from the table. I put the book down and finish what’s in my glass.
Leah’s got her head in the freezer, checking to see if the new ice is ready. I get up from my chair and go to her. I grip her hips, momentarily, then slip my hands around her front, get underneath the fabric of her tee-shirt and clasp them over her belly. Holding her close against me as chill air washes over us.
“Hey there, you,” she says, and presses back.
I circle her nipples with my index fingers, feeling myself tense as they tighten.
She turns her neck to the side, as if yielding to a vampire.
I kiss her on the neck, then pull her closer still—I want her to tip her head back so we can kiss.
“Couldn’t this be it?” I say, speaking the words into her hair. “Isn’t this good enough?”
She reaches behind herself, thrusts one arm between us and pushes. Her other arm is drawn across her beautiful breasts like a shield.
Leah doesn’t throw me out, but she also doesn’t try to hide that I’ve upset her, or how badly. We can’t talk about it, or I know she wouldn’t so I don’t even try, but it’s what goes unsaid between people that builds up like masonry. You have to either knock the bricks out with other things, or let them keep stacking until eventually you are alone in a room. So the important thing is that we are sitting here, together, sharing a silence that is both charged and cozy, working on a fresh round of drinks.
When they’re finished, Leah doesn’t offer to refresh them again. She says she thinks she’ll get ready for bed. I wobble a bit when I stand. We say goodnight and I see myself out. We have always forgiven each other everything. It is easy to believe that we will survive love.
I’m walking down 108th, toward Broadway, not knowing which direction I’ll turn when I get there. Then, instead of turning one way or the other, I decide where I really want to be is inside this bar on the corner. I’ve never been in here before. I take a stool at the far end, order a Maker’s, shoot it, then order a beer to sit and sip on, though before I know it half of that’s gone too. It’s pretty busy in here—a student hangout, apparently, though of course that can mean a lot of things. The Pixies are on the too-loud stereo. Straining to listen to the conversation nearest me, I am able to discern the word “epistemology.” English majors.
“Do you know what time it is?” Richard says. “Of course you don’t or you wouldn’t be calling.” I’m on the sidewalk in front of the bar. “So. How drunk are you, exactly?”
I say, “Nobody knows me like you do I don’t understand it.” I’m not even slurring too badly, all things considered. “What did you mean when you said we were all the same? Who?”
“Christ,” Richard says.
“I’m not a fucking type Richard I’m a fucking person.”
“It’s not one or the other, Todd. You’re a type of person, and I’m sorry if that hurts to hear, but it’s true. Also, I’m not that sorry. You typed me right off as a needy used-up old fag, and now that you know I’m not you’re trying to recast me as magic negro to your plighted hero.”
“Fine okay you’re right. So okay, fine, hit me with it— what am I? Type me.”
“You,” Richard says—dramatic pause—“are the type who hears the deadbolt turning but can’t tell whether the door is about to be opened or has just been locked shut.”
A taxi is sailing up the street. I stick my arm out. It sees me, pulls an outrageous U-turn in the empty intersection, sidles up to the curb. “I’m coming over,” I say to Richard. “I’m going to make it right between us.”
“No you’re not,” he says.
“I am,” I say. “I already gave your address to the driver.” I put my hand over the mouthpiece and give his address to the driver.
“It’s already right between us,” Richard says, “in the sense that it’s never going to be anything other than this. You try to make things better, and that’s sweet, sort of, but the fact is they aren’t yours to change. I’m sure it’s the same with your other—situation, though please don’t take that as invitation to start talking about whatshername.”
Richard hangs up on me, but only because he’s a showoff, and needs to always have the final word. He’s in love with the sound of his own voice cutting out, and imagining what that absence sounds like in my ear, but by the time I get to his place he’ll be out of his snit, and ready to be good to me. Maybe, in the morning, he’ll even offer to pay me back for my cab.